A man smiles at the camera in a brightly lit room. He is David Cunningham, head of strategy and partnerships for digital assets at Citi.
David Cunningham. Image: Citi

How this strategic leader avoids the ‘rabbit holes’ of blockchain

21 Nov 2023

Citi’s David Cunningham discusses his work in the digital asset and blockchain space as well as the company’s new digital token platform, Citi Token Services.

David Cunningham is the head of strategy and partnerships for digital assets at Citi, where he leads the company’s initiatives in the digital asset space, working with all blockchain-related activities in the treasury and trade solutions business.

In his role, which he has held since August 2022, he “explores how blockchain technology can enhance our offerings for our global network”.

“I also look after partnerships where we collaborate with other large businesses and with start-ups who can help us on our journey as we move to 24/7 always-on financial services.”

We spoke to Cunningham about his day to day in this role, what he enjoys most about working in this area and what advice he has for those considering working in deep tech.

‘Becoming an expert in a new type of tech is not limited by geography or financial means’

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day in the job?

My day begins with coffee before dropping the kids to school. I spend a lot of time with Citi’s clients validating that what we are building is going to solve real challenges that they have. This can be in person, on Zoom or at conferences and forums. I work with a global team and while we have activities in 160 countries, my most common interactions are between colleagues from New York, across EMEA and Singapore, so being in Europe is a great time zone to be the bridge connecting these teams.

What deep-tech skills do you use on a daily basis?

I have to showcase the practical applications of how blockchain can solve the needs and challenges of some of the largest companies in the world as they manage their money across the globe. I’ve had to go deep in understanding how treasury professionals operate today and the tools and solutions that they use and then explain in a clear manner how our technology can help.

I have spent the past year working to bring a new solution to life called Citi Token Services. This is a platform that uses blockchain and integrates tokenised deposits and smart contracts into Citi’s global network, upgrading core cash management and trade finance capabilities.

The services will be fully integrated into Citi’s existing global network infrastructure providing clients with a seamless experience. It’s been a fun journey and doing anything on the scale Citi operates is always going to be challenging but it makes everyday life interesting.

What are the hardest parts of working with this technology, and how do you navigate them?

As a technology, blockchain has often been accused of being a solution looking for a problem. A part of my work is being objective and asking ‘why?’ a lot. This simple question helps avoid going down rabbit holes and ensuring that what we are focused on is actually meaningful.

Do you have any productivity tips that help you through the day?

Deleting Twitter from my phone was a great move for me this year! Other than that, I have endeavoured to avoid meetings where I am not really needed. This helps me to stay focused on what we need to achieve and this year I really needed that relentless focus, and it has paid off.

What skills and tools are you using to communicate daily with your colleagues?

Where possible I like to have my camera on in Zoom meetings, sometimes words alone can be misconstrued and in a distributed global team across multiple languages, context and facial expressions help with communication.

With the speed of evolution in the area of AI, how has the nature of your work changed and how have you adapted?

It’s really just getting started. I sit beside the global head of the AI Centre of Excellence here in Dublin and we are seeing huge potential, but it hasn’t changed my daily life as of yet.

What do you enjoy most about working in this area of deep technology?

Being a part of how blockchain will cross the chasm to be used on a scale that has never been seen before within the global financial infrastructure and ensuring that it delivers real value is something that is really exciting to me.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work with this kind of tech?

My opinion and experience is that becoming an expert in a new type of tech is not limited by geography or financial means there is enough free information online in this space such as podcasts, meetups, video. To a large extent, this is how I learned enough to get involved, then I went out of my way to try to meet people in real life, then I just went deeper and deeper and got my first roles in the space.

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